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Summer Vacation Spent on the Internet?

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The school year is ending and kids are getting ready for weeks of sun, relaxation, camps and hanging out - online. From Club Penguin to MySpace, YouTube and the latest next big thing, Ning.com, children will be spending more time online than ever before. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 94 percent of teens go online with nearly 60 percent keeping their online profiles on sites such as Facebook up to date. So where in the online world are your kids going to be this summer?

With kids have more time on their hands over the next few months, it's a good time - June being Internet Safety Month - to asses rules governing online activity in your home. Many overstretched parents use PCs, laptops, game consoles and good ole TV as ways to divert their children and keep them from wandering the streets or otherwise getting into trouble. We parents console ourselves with the thought that the Internet is a vital educational tool for our kids and we don't want to stifle their chances of making it in this Web 2.0 world. At the same time, we fail to fully understand the extraordinary communication devices we are placing in their hands.

In the early days of the Internet, we worried about children accessing pornographic sites, violent and disturbing images and being lured into encounters with strangers. To this day, the media remains fixated on the web-based "boogey man." In reality, an oft quoted figure of one in seven kids being sexually solicited online has been questioned by researchers. While it may be true that many teens are sent inappropriate remarks, the number that receive aggressive solicitation, leading to a possible encounter is closer to one in 25. While that remains too high, it's important to consider the other ways kids can be harmed or get into trouble themselves online.

With the advent of Web 2.0 - interactive, social-networking sites, such as, Facebook, Ning and Youtube - children and teens are just as likely to be active producers of content as they are to be passive consumers. Overwhelmingly this means perfectly harmless, fun and learning activities. But there is also a growing and disturbing trend for young people to use their increasingly powerful online devices to bully, harass and shame their "friends". What may start as a bit of banter at school or day camp, can quickly take on a life of its own through instant messages, postings on a kid's social networking profile, e-mails, text messages and videos sent to hundreds of others in an instant. In some extreme cases, this cyberbullying has led to teen suicides.

A new craze that is fast becoming a national trend is nude photo-sharing amongst kids. As young boys and girls exchange revealing photos of themselves wirelessly, these photos can quickly be forwarded to everyone in his or her "buddy" list and the situation can quickly get out of hand. In some recent cases, kids have been charged with producing, distributing and possessing "child porn".

It is no wonder that parents can feel not only overwhelmed, but helpless in the face of photo sharing and so many other "traditional" concerns of viruses, scams and illegal file sharing. These potential harms make it a critical time for parents to educate themselves about the threats and what preventative measures can be taken. Parents will soon learn about a variety of tools at their disposal. They will also realize that potential control measures that would prove effective in protecting their own security as consumers and the safety of their children are not yet offered by providers. Consumers have a strong voice and should be demanding more choice and available measures to control content. Wouldn't it be empowering if we could eliminate inappropriate online ads targeted to our teens with the simple click of an op-out button?

While we wait for these tools to me made available, parents should sit down with your kids and talk about where they go online, what they are doing and with whom. Ensure that parental controls are set and working on all the electronic devices that access the web in your home. For the older ones, it's best to use monitoring software, with your teens' full knowledge, to keep track of their online behavior and activity. Set time limits; sign a family online safety contract; keep the PC in a public space and ask their friends' parents if they have rules and tools in their houses.

Don't lose a sense of balance or perspective. Sit down, talk about your values and what is and is not acceptable in your family. And by far the best way for kids to stay safe online this summer: go play outside.